Empires and Other Political Systems Review for AP World History

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Updated on Mar 4, 2011

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Empires and Other Political Systems Review Questions for AP World History

Spain and Portugal in the Americas

In the mid- and late fifteenth century, events that took place on the Iberian peninsula culminated in an encounter between Western Europe and the Americas. This encounter profoundly altered the government and society of the peoples of the Americas. In the mid-fifteenth century, the Portuguese increased exploration of the western and eastern coasts of Africa. The knowledge and wealth obtained from these ventures created further interest in expeditions of exploration and colonization. In Spain, the marriage of Fernando of Aragón and Isabel of Castile in the mid-fifteenth century united the kingdoms of Aragón and Castile. This union gave its support to three significant events in Spanish history in 1492:

  • The Reconquista (Reconquest) of former Spanish territory from the Muslims with the fall of Granada.
  • The expulsion of Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. Spain would suffer serious economic repercussions with the removal of the Jews, who were some of its most welleducated and skilled people.
  • The first voyage of Columbus. The unification of central Spain and the end of warfare with the Muslims freed the Spanish monarchs to turn their attention to voyages of exploration.

The Spanish-sponsored voyage of Ferdinand Magellan, beginning in 1519, not only circumnavigated the globe but also gave Spain a basis for its colonization of the Philippines in the late sixteenth century.

Spain's Empire

Control in the Caribbean

Spain's interests in the Americas began in the Caribbean. During his second voyage in 1493, Columbus established a colony on Santo Domingo. In the sixteenth century, the Spaniards took control of Puerto Rico and Cuba and settled Panama and the northern coast of South America. Spanish control of these regions introduced European diseases to the Native Americans, an exchange that significantly decreased the native population. The Spanish crown granted Caribbean natives to the conquerors for use as forced labor.

Conquest in the Americas

In the fifteenth century, the once mighty empires of the Aztecs and Incas fell to the Spaniards. Tales of riches in the interior of Mexico led the Spaniard Hernán Cortés to attempt the conquest of the Aztec Empire. The Spaniards were aided in their venture by several factors:

  • Indian allies from among native peoples who had been conquered by the Aztecs.
  • The legend of Quetzalcóatl—Moctezuma II, the Aztec leader at the time of the conquest, believed that Cortés may have been the god who was expected to return to Mesoamerica.
  • Superior Spanish weaponry.
  • The assistance of Malinche (called Doña Marina by the Spanish), an Aztec woman who served as interpreter between the Spanish and the Aztecs.
  • Smallpox—Introduced into the Aztec Empire by one infected member of the Cortés expedition, it caused the death of thousands.

On the completion of the Aztec conquest in 1521, the capital city of Tenochtitlán was burned to the ground and a new capital, Mexico City, was constructed on its site. The Spaniards then continued their conquests into north central Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The Spaniards also turned their attention to the region of the Andes Mountains of western South America. By 1535, Francisco Pizarro had conquered the rich Inca Empire, already weakened by years of civil war. The Spaniards then sent expeditions from northern Mexico into what is now the southwestern portion of the United States. From 1540 to 1542, Francisco de Coronado reached as far north as Kansas in an unsuccessful search for seven mythical cities of gold. Further campaigns of exploration led to the conquest of Chile and the establishment of the city of Buenos Aires in present-day Argentina. By the late sixteenth century, the Spaniards had set up about 200 urban centers in the Americas.

Spanish galleons carried loads of gold and silver across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain, where the influx of such large quantities of the precious metals caused inflation of the Spanish economy. Eventually, inflation spread throughout Europe. Until the eighteenth century, the Manila galleons sailed the Pacific, transporting silver from the mines of Spain's American colonies to China to trade for luxury goods.

The pursuit of gold and adventure was not the sole motive for the founding of a Spanish colonial empire. Another goal was the desire to spread the Roman Catholic faith to native peoples. Roman Catholic religious orders such as the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans established churches and missions where they educated the Indians and taught them the Christian faith. The Roman Catholic faith became an integral element in the society of the Spanish colonies.

The right of the Spaniards to govern their American colonies was established by papal decree through the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). This agreement divided the newly discovered territories between the Catholic countries of Spain and Portugal by drawing an imaginary line around the globe. Spain received the right to settle the lands to the west of the line drawn through the Western Hemisphere, and Portugal those to the east. Spanish government in the Americas was a massive bureaucracy controlled from Spain by the Council of Indies. The council was further divided into two viceroyalties, one centered in Mexico City and the other in Lima, in present-day Peru.

The economic structure of Spain's American colonies was the encomienda system. Encomiendas were grants from the Spanish crown that allowed the holders to exploit the Indians living on the land they controlled. In Peru, the exploitation of Indians took the form of the mita, or forced labor, especially in the silver mines. After Father Bartolomé de las Casas spoke out against the mistreatment of the Indians, the encomienda system was restructured as the repartamiento. The new system allowed a small salary to be paid to Indian laborers.

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